Pyrola umbellata. Winter Green.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 21. Pyrola umbellata. THIS most beautiful of the species of Pyrola is extensively diffused throughout the northern hemisphere. It inhabits ail latitudes in the United States, and extends across the continent to the shores of the Pacific ocean. It is also found in the forests of Siberia, and in several of the northern and temperate countries of Europe. It only grows in shady woods, where it is protected from the sun, and nourished by the peculiar soil formed from the decomposition of leaves and wood. The most common appellations, by which it is known in the United States, are Winter green and Pipsissewa. It flowers in June and July, being somewhat later than most of the other species of its family.

By Pursh and some other American botanists, this species and one other have been separated from the genus Pyrola, to constitute a new family by the name of Chimaphila. As the grounds of distinction, however, between them are not sufficient to render it certain that this genus will ultimately stand; I have preferred retaining the original Linnaean name. [It is somewhat remarkable, that the genus Chimaphila was first established upon characters, which hardly exist in either of the plants it is intended to comprehend. The principal grounds of distinction, suggested by Michaux and adopted by Pursh, seem to consist in a sessile stigma, and anthers opening by a subbivalve foramen. Now the stigma is not sessile, since that term implies the absence of a style, and the anthers do not open by any subbivalve foramen, differing from the rest, but by two tubular pores, precisely as in the other species of Pyrola. Mr. Nuttall, in his interesting work on North American genera, has amended the character of Chimaphila, by bringing into view the calyx, filaments, &c. while he has added to the characteristics of Pyrola, a downy connexion of the valves of the capsule. In the calyx, however, the two species of Chimaphila are at different extremes from each other; one of them having a five leaved calyx, the leaves overlaying each other at base; the other having a five toothed calyx only, while the remaining species of Pyrola, being five parted, come between them. I have not been able to find the tomentum spoken of by Mr. Nuttall, in all the spiked species, and particularly in P. secunda.
If the genus Pyrola were ever to be dismembered, it should be into at least four distinct genera, as follows;
1. Style declined, stigma annulate.
P. rotundifolia, P. asarifolia, &c.
2. Style straight, stigma peltate.
P. secunda, P. uniflora, &c.
3. Style incrassated, calyx five leaved.
P. maculata.
4. Style immersed, calyx five toothed.
P. umbellata.
If we go farther and take into view the direction and form of the filaments, and the other parts of flower and fruit, with their various combinations; we shall have nearly as many genera as there are now species, since it is well known that many of the most important specific distinctions in this genus are taken from the fructification.
On these accounts there can be no doubt that the genus Pyrola had better remain entire. In habit it is certainly one of the most natural genera we possess. All the species are humble evergreens, growing in woods, with creeping roots, ascending stems, and nodding flowers. All of them have their leaves in irregular whorls, flower with reversed anthers, and retain their style until the fruit is ripe. In inflorescence, one is solitary, two somewhat corymbed, and the rest spiked. The leaves of P. secunda, umbellata and maculata are usually in two or more whorls; those of most others in one radical whorl or aggregate. One species is said to be leafless.
In the dissections accompanying the figure of P. umbellata I have endeavoured to represent the evident gradation of the style from the species in which it is longest, to that in which it is shortest. In the same plate are added some of the varieties of the calyx and stamens.
The following remark of Sir James Edward Smith, the learned president of the Linnaean society, is from Rees' Cyclopedia, Art. PYROLA. "We can by no means assent to the establishment of that able writer's (Pursh's) Genus Chimaphila, there being surely no diversity of habit to support it, nor any character but a difference in the length of the style; which the other species of Pyrola shew to afford admirable specific, but no generic distinctions.]

The genus Pyrola belongs to the class Decandria, and order Monogynia. It ranks among the Bicornes of Linnaeus and the Ericae of Jussieu.

The generic character is as follows. Calyx mostly five parted; petals five; anthers inverted, opening by two tubular pores; capsule five celled, five valved.

The species umbellata has its leaves wedge shaped and toothed, flowers somewhat umbelled, calyx five toothed, and style immersed.

Its more minute description is as follows:

Root woody, creeping, sending up stems at various distances. The stems are ascending, somewhat angular, and marked with the scars of the former leaves. The leaves grow in irregular whorls, of which there are from one to four. They are evergreen, coriaceous, on very short petioles, wedge shaped, subacute, serrate, smooth, shining, the lower surface somewhat paler. The flowers grow in a small corymb, on nodding peduncles, which are furnished with linear bractes about their middle. Calyx of five roundish subacute teeth or segments, much shorter than the corolla. Petals five, roundish, concave, spreading, cream coloured, with a tinge of purple at base. Stamens ten. Filaments sigmoid, the lower half fleshy, triangular, dilated, and slightly pubescent at the edges; the upper half filiform. Anthers two celled, each cell opening by a short, round, tubular orifice, which points downward in the bud, but upward in the flower. Pollen white. Germ roundish, depressed, furrowed, obscurely five lobed, with a funnel shaped cavity at top. Style straight, half as long as the germ, inversely conical, inserted in the cavity of the germ, and concealed by the stigma. Stigma large peltate, convex, moist, obscurely five rayed. Capsules erect, depressed, five celled, five valved, the partitions from the middle of the valves. Seeds linear, chaffy, very numerous and minute.

This plant, like the other species of Pyrola, is very difficult to cultivate, when transplanted from its native soil; although it thrives luxuriantly in the shade and rich mould of the forests where it originates.

The leaves of Pyrola umbellata, when chewed, communicate to the mouth a taste which partakes of both sweet and bitter. The stalk and roots possess the same taste, combined with a moderate degree of pungency. A Dissertation "De Pyrola umbellata," published at Gottingen, by Dr. Wolf, in 1817, contains an elaborate chemical examination of this plant. As the result of his trials, this author concludes, that 100 parts of Pyrola umbellata contain about 18 of a bitter extractive principle, 2.04 of resin, 1.38 of tannin, a slight portion of gum, and the rest of fibrina and earthy salts. The resin is adhesive, brownish, readily soluble in ether and alkalis, burning with flame and a resinous odour, and leaving a white cinder.

From my own trials the quantity of resin in this plant appears to be very small. A saturated tincture of a deep brown colour does not give a precipitate on the first addition of water. It is only after some time standing, and partly perhaps from the evaporation of the alcohol, that a turbidness begins to appear in the solution. It is probable that spirit is a better menstruum than water for the soluble portions of this plant, although the latter is capable of extracting the greater part of its virtue.

The Pyrola umbellata, though scarcely known as a medicine until within a few years past, has at the present day acquired a reputation of considerable extent in the treatment of various diseases. Its popular celebrity seems to have originated in its application to the treatment of fever and rheumatism; but the attention of physicians has been chiefly drawn towards its use in other complaints. The instances in which this plant has received favourable testimonies on medical authority, of its successful use, both in America and Europe, are principally the following, i. As a palliative in strangury and nephritis. 2. As a diuretic in dropsy. 3. As an external stimulant, susceptible of useful application to various cases.

In the first of these cases, the Pyrola is entitled to attention and confidence. Some practitioners in this country have employed it with advantage in the same cases, in which the Arbutus Uva ursi is recommended [See Dr. Mitchell's Inaugural Dissertation. Philadelphia, 1803.]. Dr. Wolf, the German writer lately cited, has reported a number of cases of ischuria and dysuria, arising from various causes, in which the Pyrola, given in infusion, produced the most evident relief, and took precedence of a variety of remedies which had been tried. His method of administering it was to give a table spoonful of a strong infusion, with a little syrup, every hour. In all the cases he has detailed, small as the dose was, it gave relief in a very short time. In one case its effect was so distinctly marked, that the disease returned whenever the medicine was omitted and was removed on resuming its use. A tonic operation attended its other effects, so that the appetite was improved and digestion promoted during the period of its employment.

The diuretic properties of the Pyrola umbellata, seem to have been fully illustrated by Dr. W. Somerville in a paper on this vegetable, published in the 5th volume of the London Medico-Chirurgical transactions. The facts presented by this physician afford satisfactory evidence of the power of this medicine to promote the renal excretion, and to afford relief to patients afflicted with dropsy in its various forms. The most distinguished case presented by him, is that of Sir James Craig, the British governour in Canada, who was labouring under a general dropsy, which in its progress had assumed the forms of hydrothorax, anasarca and ascites, and which was combined with different organic diseases, especially of the liver. After having tried with little or temporary success, almost every variety of diuretic and cathartic medicines, and submitted twice to the operation of tapping, the patient had recourse to a strong infusion of the Pyrola, in the quantity of a pint every twenty four hours. Although the case was altogether an unpromising one, yet the plant gave relief, not only in the first, but in the subsequent instances of its use. It increased the urinal discharge, and at the same time produced an augmentation of strength and an invigorated appetite.

Several other cases of dropsy are detailed in Dr. Somerville's paper, in which the Pyrola was administered by himself and by other practioners with decided advantage. Dr. Satterly and Dr. Marcet are among those who have added their observations to the testimonies in its favour. Dr. Somerville found his patients to remark, that an agreeable sensation was perceived in the stomach soon after taking the Pyrola, and that this was followed in some instances by an extraordinary increase of appetite. He considers it as having in this respect a great advantage over other diuretics, none of which are agreeable to the stomach, and most of them very offensive to it. He further states, that no circumstance had occurred within his own experience or information, to forbid its use in any form, or to limit the dose.

Dr. Wolf has given one very satisfactory case of the utility of our plant in ascites. He also found it to alleviate altogether the ardor urinae attendant on gonorrhea.

Such are the most important facts which to my knowledge have been published respecting the internal use of the Pyrola umbellata. I have administered this plant on various occasions, and attended to its mode of operation. In a number of dropsical cases, when first given, it made a distinct and evident impression on the disease, communicating an increased activity to the absorbents, followed by a great augmentation of the excretion from the kidnies. The benefit, however, with me has been in most instances temporary, and it was found better to omit the medicine for a time and to resume it afresh, than to continue it until the system had become insensible to its stimulus. After suspending it for a week or two, the same distinct operation took place on returning to its use, as had been manifested in the first instance. It proved in almost every instance, a very acceptable medicine to the patient, and was preferred both for its sensible qualities and its effects on the stomach, to other diuretics and alteratives which had been prescribed.

The Pyrola has been considerably employed as an external application in tumours and ulcers of various descriptions. It first acquired notice in consequence of some newspaper attestations of its efficacy in the cure of cancer. Those persons who know how seldom genuine cancers occur in comparison with reputed ones, will be more ready to allow it the character of curing ulcerous, than really cancerous affections. There are undoubtedly many ulcers, and those frequently of a malignant kind, which are benefitted by antiseptic stimulants; and to such the Pyrola may be useful. But of its efficacy in real cancer we require more evidence than is at present possessed, before we ascribe to it the power of controlling so formidable a malady.

Dr. Miller of Franklin informs me that he has used a decoction and cataplasm of this plant with apparent success in various chronic indurated swellings. It acts as a topical stimulant, and when long continued, not unfrequently vesicates. Tumours of long standing have in several instances disappeared under its use.

Botanical References.

Pyrola umbellata, Lin. Sp. pl. Gmelin, Flora Sibirica. Roth, Flora Germanica.—Bot. Mag. t. 778. Michaux, Flora Americana, i. 251.
Pyrola fruticans, Parkinson, Theatrum, 509.
J. Bauhin, Hist. plant, iii. 556.
•Chimaphila corymbosa, Pursh, i. 300.
Nuttall, Genera, i. 274.

Medical References.

Mitchell, Inaugural Dissertation.
Somerville, Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, vol. v.
Wolf, Dissertatio Inauguralis.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.